IOWA CITY, Iowa — Thousands of students at Iowa's three public universities could graduate without seeing their tuition increase once, which Gov. Terry Branstad said would be a historic achievement.
The Iowa Board of Regents voted Wednesday to freeze tuition for resident undergraduate students for the third straight year — provided that lawmakers approve a funding increase for the universities next spring. The freeze would affect roughly 40,000 students.
If it happens, in-state students who graduate in May 2016 will have paid the same annual base tuition all four years: $6,678 at the University of Iowa and $6,648 at Iowa State University and the University of Northern Iowa. Mandatory fees have risen during that time.
Branstad appointees on the board have made affordability a top priority, saying the state's above-average debt for college graduates is unacceptable. The board has conducted a wide-ranging review to cut costs and improve efficiency on the campuses, and some of the projected savings are expected to be used to offset the freeze's $4.5 million cost.
Regent Larry McKibben, a Marshalltown lawyer, said a third freeze would be unprecedented in Iowa history and help students and families who are struggling to afford higher education. He pushed for the freeze after rejecting a 1.75 percent increase proposed in October, which would have cost students an additional $116 next year.
"To some people 1.75 percent is a lot of money," McKibben said. "To our families, our customers and students in the state of Iowa, we owe them better."
Regent Bob Downer, an Iowa City lawyer, said he was concerned that the freeze would lead to larger tuition hikes down the road. He also questioned the plan to use anticipated cost savings to pay for it, saying they may not be realized and had been promised to the universities for other priorities. But he voted for the freeze, saying it can be sustained one more year.
Board President Bruce Rastetter dismissed Downer's concerns, saying he couldn't justify raising tuition when millions in savings were in the works.
"We ought to deal with the reality of today that allows us to freeze tuition," he said.
The board raised tuition by 1.75 percent for nonresidents and graduate and professional students. Regents had considered whether to also freeze tuition for those students — who number about 38,000 — but opted against it. University presidents said their campuses needed the additional $10 million in revenue those increases will generate.
Branstad said he would wait to see new state revenue projections next week before promising to support the 1.75 percent funding increase the regents have sought to allow for the freeze. But he said he'd "love to see this happen."
"I think that would be historic," he said. "We've seen significant increases in costs for students and their families over the years ... I think a third year in a row without an increase would be something that students and their parents would very much appreciate."
University of Iowa Student Government president Patrick Bartoski said students were impressed by the board's commitment to affordability. He called the freeze a "no-brainer" and said the increases for other students were reasonable and would maintain quality.
Bartoski, a senior finance major from suburban Chicago, said he and many other students from Illinois go to school part-time and work for a year to establish Iowa residency to qualify for in-state tuition. The program slows students' time to graduate by a semester, but saves tens of thousands of dollars over four years.
"It's a lot of hard work but it definitely pays off," Bartoski said.
Associated Press writer Catherine Lucey in Des Moines contributed to this report.
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